The summit where everyone lost

European leaders are claiming victory, but nothing has been resolved. And Britain is in the worst of

What a mess. Although leaders sought, with tedious predictability, to portray themselves as victors, last week's summit in Brussels was one where everybody lost. David Cameron used a veto which did not block anything, and instead relegated Britain to semi-detached EU status. Angela Merkel won a treaty that may never be ratified and with terms that most countries will not be able to keep to. And although the European Central Bank has been handed control over the two EU bail-out funds, and the IMF given an extra €200bn, there is still no "big bazooka' to calm the financial markets. The euro crisis has not been resolved.

British eurosceptics took to the airwaves to celebrate David Cameron's surprising move to veto plans for a very modest - and very conservative - treaty revision. The problem is that a veto implies the ability to stop something, whereas treaty change is going to happen anyway.

But what has Cameron won? The safeguards for the City that he talked about? Nope, even though President Van Rompuy had worked on texts with Cameron's officials before the summit started. It was when Cameron demanded that the UK should be exempted from financial regulation that the problems started. This was always going to be an impossible demand, but Cameron and his officials knew this and had prepared protocols and declarations that, without being guarantees, would have been enough to take back to London. Although Sarkozy initially refused this, Cameron should have been able to win out eventually. Unfortunately, Cameron, already regarded as a diplomatic lightweight by most leaders, over-played his hand, threatened a veto and Sarkozy called his bluff.

It is hard to understand why he chose, as Lord Kerr put it, to "pick up the ball and walk off the pitch before the game started". This was, remember, just a summit. A new treaty was not decided here, only the principals. It would have been quite natural for Cameron to take the deal to the House of Commons in order to establish a clear and detailed mandate for further negotiation.

Cameron has actually done his party and the moderate eurosceptics in his party no good. Although dramatically wielding the veto guaranteed 24 hours of positive coverage from eurosceptics, the reality is that Britain has been left with the worst of all worlds. He didn't win any safeguards - in fact, the City will almost certainly pay a large price as the UK was already struggling to find allies on financial regulation in the Council of Ministers and will now find it even harder -and an unnecessary and politically dangerous, treaty will go through anyway with Britain locked out of the room. Only the Conservatives who actually want Britain to leave the EU should be happy.

Indeed, an "in/out" referendum on our EU membership is now almost inevitable. Conservatives will soon grow frustrated at paying higher costs for fewer of the benefits of membership. If Cameron remains committed to EU membership, this will push more Tories into the arms of Ukip and the BNP.

Friday's BBC Newsnight programme, which treated us to Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott and Bernard Jenkin tearing lumps out of each other, highlighted the new tension that will divide the coalition. Yet amidst Oakeshott's anger and Jenkin's gloating came one revealing admission: Jenkin did not, he said, want Britain to leave the EU. Instead, he saw the summit as the first step towards re-negotiating our terms of membership and repatriating some powers. Jenkin's remarks are representative of most Tory MPs. But he is either disingenuous or stunningly naïve. Any goodwill towards the Conservatives has now evaporated - even though right-wing parties are in power in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. There is only one option facing Britain in the future: stay in or sod off.

There is nothing here for Europhiles to rejoice over either. As the only country not to take the summit deal back to their national parliament, the UK has been firmly established as a semi-detached member of the EU. Having worked hard to win allies and influence following the enmity caused by the Iraq war, Labour and Lib Dem MEPs will now have to cope with the suspicion and anger of their European sister-parties. The notion that Britain is intrinsically anti-European, disruptive and a "wrecker" will be hard to shift. They will also have to cope with a national debate on EU policy that will, even more than before, be divided along in/out lines.

The treaty proposals also demonstrated how toothless the European left currently is. Conservatives are now in power in Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain, and the terms of reference have been dictated by Merkel and, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy. The result is, as Owen Jones remarked, a treaty that locks in austerity for the eurozone. In particular, establishing a 0.5 per cent ceiling for structural deficits is a rule that few countries will be able to adhere to and will make it impossible for countries to pursue expansionary policies in the short or medium term. Europe's economies desperately need to achieve better budgetary discipline, but this is more of a strait-jacket than a life-jacket.

However, it is interesting that both François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, and Peer Steinbruck, the leader of the German SPD, have both attacked the proposals. Merkel remains a highly embattled Chancellor while Hollande, twenty points ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, is likely to be President within months. If the Merkozy duopoly stays committed to a full treaty change, then ratification will be very bumpy and uncertain.

But while the euro crisis remains unresolved, a new crisis has been created concerning Britain's status in the EU. Cameron has achieved the unique feat of leading his party inexorably towards another disastrous split over Europe while driving a decisive wedge between him and his Lib Dem coalition partners. More importantly, he has ensured that a summit about the future of the euro will instead be remembered as the time when Britain willingly isolated itself for no reward and moved dangerously close to Europe's exit door.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

The UK's first shale gas operation has been approved, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders argue that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry said would be created actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates 10 times more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), the US reduced its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without the introduction of fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservaitves support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This is a sentiment that was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision as a “fantastic opportunity” for fracking.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because of the question of their replacement once they eventually run out: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.